A late lingering winter this year is taking its toll on deer in many parts of the upper Midwest.
While most of the region has experienced what would generally be considered a mild winter, precipitation late in the season has resulted in above-average snow depths that are continuing well into spring.
“I think if you tried to tell a deer in northern Wisconsin right now that it was experiencing a mild winter, it would have some choice words for you,” Mike Zeckmeister, the northern region wildlife manager for Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Late winter conditions are difficult on wildlife that is already weakened from the winter. And even if adult deer do survive, they can lose fetuses or have fewer offspring.
The winter and late-arriving spring are shaping to be one of the toughest on wildlife in more than a decade. Parts of Bayfield County in Wisconsin has received 18 inches of snow during May. The previous record was 3 inches, meteorologist Mark Holley told the Journal Sentinel.
“Hard winters are part of living in Wisconsin,” Zeckmeister said. “That doesn’t make it easy to take, though.”
In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, snow depths through January were below average. However, heavy precipitation in February and March left deep snows across the peninsula. Those conditions extended well into April and May.
“Biologists anticipate negative impacts to the deer herd when winter conditions persist longer than three months,” the Michigan Department of Natural Resources said in a release. “Because of the heavy late-winter snowfall, U.P. deer are showing visible signs of winter fatigue, including thin body conditions and lethargic behavior. Biologists have already received reports of deer mortalities.
“Population indices indicate that the deer population across the region experienced a low in 2009 following two consecutive harsh winters,” the report continued. “The population has since been increasing. Although it is too early to determine the full impact of this year's winter, biologists expect population growth will at least slow this year given the conditions.
Reports of starved deer and other weather-affected animals have been reported with increased frequency by officials with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as well. The agency’s Wildlife Health Team recently investigated an area in Door County along the Door Peninsula between Lake Michigan and Green Bay. Several dead deer were reported.
“The situation was very indicative of malnutrition,” Jeff Pritzl, the DNR’s northeast region wildlife supervisor, told the Journal Sentinel. “All but two of over 20 carcasses were last year’s fawns. It’s symptomatic of a deer population out of balance with its habitat.”
Zeckmeister said several dead deer found in northwestern Wisconsin showed red, jelly-like bone marrow, indicating the animals has used up their fat reserves.
In April and May, Wisconsin’s DNR also received reports of dead turkeys, ruffed grouse and owls. Migrating songbirds were also found, many struck by vehicles as the birds foraged on roadsides, the only bare ground to be found.
Zeckmeister said the Wisconsin DNR wildlife staff was “ratcheting down” deer harvest quotas because of the late winter conditions. In some parts of northwestern Wisconsin, the kill quotas have been reduced 30 to 50 percent from the original recommendations.
“In 2008, we had a late green-up and it resulted in poor deer recruitment,” he said. “This year, we’re already working to adjust our deer quotas for the severity of the winter.
“Our native critters have evolved to handle tough winters. Since we value them, it’s hard to see them struggle. But experience shows they will come back.”